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Signs of Distress

What if you notice a student needs more support?

If you're concerned about a student, please don't delay in offering support, or consulting with someone who can help.  Learn to recognize and respond to signs of distress that can indicate a student may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, or contemplating harm to self or others.   

Emergencies or Urgent Concerns: Call 911 or the University Police at 304-293-2677. You can also call us at 304-293-4431 for consultation.  

Signs of distress

The following indicators can be important signs of distress, particularly when they interfere with a student’s  health and/or social and academic functioning:

  • Unrelenting sadness, hopelessness, or apathy
  • Loss of interest in socializing
  • Deterioration in academic functioning, included falling behind and missing classes
  • Verbal or written threats of suicide, or expressions of hopelessness or a wish to die
  • Persistent problems with sleep, appetite, concentration, or motivation
  • Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Impulsivity and unnecessary risk-taking
  • Incongruous or out-of-context emotional outbursts (unprovoked anger or hostility, sobbing)
  • Dramatic changes in energy levels or personality traits 
  • Worrisome changes in hygiene or personal appearance, including significant weight changes
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns
  • Unusual or extreme obsessions – with a person, situation, or topic
  • Threats of violence

You may notice one or more of these signs and decide that something is clearly wrong. Or you may just have a “gut feeling” that something’s amiss.

Either way, you should take these signs – and your intuition – seriously. Most people who attempt suicide, self-harm, or violence give some warning of their intentions.

How to respond

In any given situation, there are likely to be several way to reach out in a caring manner. The only real risk is in doing nothing. You can…

Speak with the person directly

Express your concern, and let them know you care. Using “I” statements to reflect on what you’ve observed is a great place to start (i.e., “I’ve noticed you seem really down these past few weeks,” or "I'm worried about you because I notice you're drinking more, and not making it to your morning classes”). Listen with your full attention, be compassionate and non-judgmental, and don’t jump to conclusions or offer quick solutions.

Remind your friend that the pain or challenges they feel now are not permanent, and that help is available. You can suggest that they connect with the Carruth Center, or any of the other campus resources. Offer to walk with them to their initial appointment. You may also want to suggest that they reach out to their family for support. But avoid giving ultimatums or trying to pressure someone into changing or getting help.

If your student has been a victim of sexual assault or abuse, be sure your friend knows you believe them, and reassure them that whatever happened is not their fault. Ask open-ended questions like "what can I do to support you?" Avoid telling them what to do, but do gently suggest available resources. Support your friend's decisions about reporting and seeking medical care and counseling.

If you’re having trouble approaching your friend, you can speak with a Carruth Center  counselor (304-293-4431) about your concerns and get help brainstorming ways you might deal with the situation.

Tell someone

If it’s an emergency, call 911. Otherwise, you can call Carruth Center for consultation ( 304-293-4431) about ways to support your friend.  It is always recommended that you call while you are with the student so we can hear what you have been seeing, noticing and experiencing but we have an opportunity to discuss these concerns with them as well.   This is extremely important in emergency or concerning situations as we may have some immediate suggestions and it is easier to do right in the moment.

If the student lives in University housing, you can also speak with their residential staff, who are trained to respond to such concerns. If you’re comfortable doing so, you may also speak with a professor, TA, or staff member in your college advising/student services office.

Get support

If you don’t know where to start – or you’re having trouble dealing with the situation yourself – you can connect with a Carruth Center counselor for consultation and personal support. Supporting a friend in crisis can be stressful and traumatic, and you do not need to go through it alone.